Snorkeling with Humpback Whales

humpback whale calf
Humpback Whale Calf off of the Silver Bank, Atlantic Ocean

My Experience Snorkeling with Humpback Whales off the Silver Bank, Atlantic Ocean

I slid into the Atlantic Ocean off the small boat like a seal sliding off a rock and into the water. I heard my breathing through my snorkel and blinked while focusing on the deep blue beyond.

Suddenly, there they were, a 40 foot (12.2m) long mother humpback whale with her 15 foot (4.6m) long calf circling her. It was an astonishing sight. I have seen humpback whales and their antics above the water off of Hawaii and California, but here was the gentle giant in her own watery environment.

They swam around us and our boat, eyeing us. No doubt they were curious about the ungainly creatures who had literally came out of the blue. The mother and calf swam next to us, under us and so close that I knew with flick of her tail, it could be the end of me.

It was like a dream, one that would be long lost if it weren’t for the pictures my small point and shoot underwater camera took. There were full body shots of the mother and calf, and body parts like flukes or the long pectoral fins filling the entire frame.

The largest animal I had snorkeled with before was the ocean’s largest fish, a whale shark, and it was only as long as the calf! I remember counting the seconds as the whale shark would slowly swim by, head-body-tail, gulping down water through its gills to filter out plankton to eat.

The calf needed to come up for air every few minutes, with mother in tow even though she could average 20 minutes per breath. The calf swam close to its mother the whole time they were with us, a good 30 minutes. They circled our boat many times. Our 25 foot long boat paled in comparison to the mother. Female humpbacks can grow up to 50 feet (15m) long and 35 tons (31.8 tonnes)!

humpback whale pectoral fins
Humpback whale mother’s pectoral fins

Out of the water the pair put on quite a show, tail lobbing (slapping their flukes on the surface of the water), pectoral fin slapping and breaching their whole bodies out of the water!

Intentions are powerful. The previous night while introducing ourselves (our group had all previously snorkeled with wild dolphins in the Bahamas with Wildquest over the years) and why we were there, I shared that I wanted to see a mother and calf pair underwater as well as write a blog post, a children’s book and article. I’m not saying I’m solely responsible for the long and memorable encounter—the humpback whales made that happen—but considering we only got into the water once more during the week (we heard a male humpback singing underwater!), it made this encounter even more special.

Aquatic Adventures specializes in “Passive-in-Water Whale Encounters” or PIWEE (pee-wee) on the Silver Bank Marine Sanctuary, which is halfway between the Dominican Republic (where we flew in to) and the Turks and Caicos islands in the Atlantic Ocean (the Caribbean borders the other sides of the Dominican Republic).

From Aquatic Adventure’s website, “Research indicates that the Silver Bank contains the largest seasonal population humpbacks in the North Atlantic Ocean, if not the world. The sanctuary is only 40 square miles but 5000-7000 humpback whales pass through each winter.”

The Silver Bank is a calving and mating ground for humpback whales. The calves grow quickly on their mother’s milk of 70% fat (whole cow’s milk is only 4% fat in comparison!). They are born 10-15 feet long and 1-2 tons in weight. The mother will not feed again until she reaches somewhere north like Stellwagen Bank off of Massachusetts, USA.

I want to thank everyone on the boat, guests and crew alike, for an amazing experience in and out of the water. For more on snorkeling with humpback whales in the Silver Bank, visit Aquatic Adventure’s website.

Feel free to comment or email with any questions!

Who Was Rachel Carson?

Rachel Carson
Rachel Carson, marine biologist and author

This International Women’s Day (March 8) I wanted to write about one of my role models, Rachel Carson. So who was Rachel Carson? Well, she single-handedly started the modern environmental movement with her seminal book, Silent Spring. She, along with Jane Goodall, are my role models. As such, you would’ve thought that I would have dove into and finished all of her books, but alas I haven’t. Part of it is jealousy because she became so famous and I write similarly to her. But I’m following in her footsteps as a science communicator, which is someone who takes complex scientific concepts and makes them easy to understand to the general public.

I’ve delved more deeply into her life and who she was as a person. She was shy, introverted and deeply invested in nature. She loved the ocean, but spent precious little time in it. Though she spent a lot of time on its shores by her house in Maine. She bought that house with the proceeds from her books. Authors can make a living from writing 😉

She wrote mainly about the east coast where she lived (her book, Under the Sea Wind, was about the animals that lived on the shoreline there), and especially near Silver Spring, Maryland where she worked for the government (US Fish and Wildlife Service) as a writer and editor. Rachel actually visited my neck of the woods, San Francisco once. She loved Muir Woods and wished she had more time to explore San Francisco.


I like reading her old letters to her friends and colleagues, especially to the love of her life, Dorothy Freeman. It’s a shame she had to hide her love, though she did express herself through her letters. In this day and age two women loving each other is acceptable, but Rachel couldn’t even talk straight to her doctor when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Doctors didn’t like the fact she wasn’t married and didn’t speak frankly with her about treatment because there wasn’t a male intermediary.

Rachel ultimately decided to hide her cancer from the public, and wrote about the dangers of the pesticide, DDT, in Silent Spring while having cancer. She also testified in front of Congress, weak from radiation treatments but still eloquent and convincing. The chemical industry didn’t slur her findings, but in desperation used personal slurs. They tried to mar her character by saying she was unmarried old maid, a communist and a cat lady (!)

The Environmental Protection Agency in the USA was formed after her death and continues to protect the environment to this day. The National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, was passed by Congress. We celebrate Earth Day each April to thanks to her. So now you know who was Rachel Carson!

Rachel Carson’s legacy lives on, and I would encourage anyone interested to read at least one of her best-selling and award-winning ocean book trilogy, Under the Sea Wind (my favorite because she named the animals, and the inspiration for my writing, including this blog), The Sea Around Us, and To the Edge of the Sea. Silent Spring is important to read but harder to get into.

Be sure and let me know which book of Rachel Carson’s is your favorite!

For more information on Rachel Carson, see Rachel Carson: Her Life and Legacy
See my tribute to Jane Goodall after meeting her!

Meet Bumpy the Leatherback Sea Turtle

leatherback sea turtle
Bumpy the Leatherback Sea Turtle was re-caught!

Hello, I’m Bumpy, a Western Pacific Leatherback Sea Turtle. The largest of all the 7 species of sea turtles, I migrate across the Pacific Ocean (from Asia to California, USA, over 6,000 miles!!) feasting on jellies.

Recently I had a strange adventure. I was happily swimming along looking for jellies to eat when bam! I couldn’t swim any longer. Something was tied behind my shoulders. Soon I was pulled out of the water. I hadn’t been out of the water since I was a hatchling racing towards the ocean after busting out of my egg shell! The water usually buoys me up, but man have I put on some weight (1,419 pounds to be exact).

Then again, maybe I have been out of the water since. Scientists recognized me from when they pulled me out of the water in 2016 to weigh and measure me. They named me Bumpy for the marks on my carapace (soft-shelled back) that I got from some ship strikes. Now that’s a story for another time.
I’m probably 20-25 years old, but who’s counting? I’m only halfway through my life, assuming I survive the perils ahead of me. Ships can strike leatherback sea turtles at the surface because we’re hard to see (I’m case in point).

We can get tangled in fishing gear, be illegally poached (our eggs especially) or have reduced nesting sites in places such as Indonesia, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.
Don’t get me started on all the plastic in the ocean, especially because I can’t tell the difference from a plastic bag full of water or a jelly full of water.

Like most large animals in the ocean, we can be by-catch from different fisheries. Gill nets are very thin nets made of almost transparent monofilaments that are stretched out for miles. Big fish, like swordfish are targeted but any animal that runs into the net including sea turtles, sharks, dolphins and seabirds get caught. They drown because they can’t get to the surface for air (like me) or because they can’t swim anymore to breathe (like sharks).

After taking biological samples from me (ow!) the scientists fitted me with new acoustic and satellite tags. They’re a drag, so to speak, but worth it to my kind if scientists can learn enough about us to help save our remaining population.

Unfortunately I’m endangered and our Western Pacific population has declined by 80% in the last 30 years. Scientists estimate that only 55 leatherback sea turtles return to the coast of California now.

My ancestors are 100 million years old—older than the dinosaurs but alas, we cannot contend with all the problems humans throw our way.

Fortunately in California (but not the rest of the world) there are rules that protect us from getting potentially entangled in fishing gear. The Dungeness crab fishery is “delayed indefinitely” due to our presence. Sorry to all you crab-eating humans out there, but I appreciate your patience as we feast on jellies in the area!

This post was inspired by this San Francisco Chronicle article, “Researchers encountered a 1,419 pound leatherback sea turtle off California coast. Turns out they’ve met him before.”

For more on sea turtles, check out 10 Fabulous Facts about Sea Turtles

What are Horseshoe Crab Blood Uses?

horseshoe crabs, horseshoe crab blood uses
Horseshoe Crabs mating on the beach (via Wikimedia Commons)

What are Horseshoe Crab Blood Uses and How Do They Spawn

Spawning time!


Hi, I’m Edna, a horseshoe crab. I’m not truly a crab, but an arthropod related to scorpions, spiders and ticks. I’m excited because it is the new moon. It is time for me to mate and lay my eggs in the sand. This is a big deal to us horseshoe crabs to actually come out of the water for this special event.

It’s getting dark and the tide is high-I sense it’s time to crawl out of the water. I don’t have good vision, even though I have up to 10 eyes! Although I don’t see as well as humans, my vision is one million times better at night than in the day.

My special chemicals, or pheromones, that I release into the water attract male horseshoe crabs to me in the surf. One of them latches onto my back with a special claw. It’s almost time to lay my eggs!

I begin my climb out of the surf. Waves crash all around me until I make it to the wet sand. I climb out a little further and begin digging a hole to lay my 4,000 eggs. I dig and dig, and finally begin to deposit my eggs. The male horseshoe crab clasped to me fertilizes the eggs as they come out of me.
I finish laying my eggs in the sand, and the male detaches from me.

Where am I going?

Wait, why am I floating in the air? What happened to the sand and water? Something has grasped me. Am I doomed?


I am in a dark place. I scramble to crawl up the wall placed before me but it’s no use. My legs just keep scratching up against something, but I can’t crawl out or over it.

Lots of other horseshoe crabs are piled around me. I sense the moonlight one moment, and the next it is gone. I thought my life might end being eaten by a shark, but surrounded by my fellow horseshoe crabs in the dark?

Where am I?


I am tired after laying all those eggs, so I sleep. When I wake up I am in a bright area. It’s not the warm sun, but there is light all around. I can move all my legs, but I can’t go anywhere. I feel my blue blood being drained from me by a cord, and it’s not a good feeling.

Back home!

Soon enough I am lifted in the air and placed in the dark place again with all the other horseshoe crabs. After what feels like hours, I feel myself lifted into the air again. The warm sun is all around me. Then I am placed down on the wet sand. I’m home! I scurry into the surf and back into the water. What a night and day I’ve had!

Note: So what are horseshoe crab blood uses? Horseshoe crabs blue blood is harvested by the biomedical industry for testing of drugs and medical devices. Their blood is blue because they use copper as a carrier for oxygen, while humans use iron as a carrier of oxygen in their red blood. There are synthetic alternatives to LAL, but their use isn’t fully adopted yet.

It is unknown if all the biomedical industries actually return all the horseshoe crabs they bleed back into the wild as they may be sold for bait instead. There has been a study that horseshoe crabs that are bled and returned to the wild have altered behavior and the females less spawning attempts.

The Atlantic Horseshoe Crab is “Near Threatened” to being endangered.

Check out these websites for more information:
Biomedical bleeding may impact horseshoe crabs spawning behavior and movement

More on horseshoe crab spawning and how to donate to help them!

And check out Plankton:The Real Monsters of the Ocean

Interview With Dr. Deni Ramirez Macias, Whale Shark Researcher

Dr. Deni Ramirez Macias and a Whale Shark
Dr. Deni Ramirez Macias and a Whale Shark

Dr. Deni Ramirez Macias is a whale shark researcher based out of the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez), Mexico. She is the director of Whale Shark Mexico (Tiburon Ballena Mexico). She started the whale shark research program in 2003 (but has been studying them since 2001). The goals of Whale Shark Mexico are research, sustainable management and environmental education.

I recently went on an expedition and met Dr. Deni Ramirez Macias. This is a paraphrased interview with her:

Cherilyn Jose (interviewer): Where did you get your doctorate degree from and what was your thesis?

Dr. Deni Ramirez Macias: I got my doctoral degree from the University of La Paz. My thesis was on the population genetics of the Gulf of California whale sharks. I found that the whale sharks return to the same area year after year. We re-sighted the whale sharks using photo identification.

CJ: How did you become interested in whale sharks? What was your first encounter with whale sharks like?

DRM: I saw dolphins and rays growing up. During my first close encounter with a whale shark, I found them to be beautiful and charismatic. I was curious about them and wanted to know more.

CJ: How much time do you spend in the field?

DRM: I spend 50% field/50% lab and administrative work. Approximately four times a month I see whale sharks in the field, and I have other researchers that go out three to four times a week.

CJ: Why should we save the whale sharks?

DRM: We should save whale sharks for the ethics of it–life will continue without us and we have to do something (before that happens). Saving whale shark habitat saves other species such as manta rays, mobula rays, and whales—it helps the ocean in general.

CJ: What are some threats to whale sharks?

DRM: Microplastics accumulate in whale sharks, not just in the adults but in the juveniles too. The same goes for heavy metals (and other pollutants). To help I use biodegradable pesticides to fumigate.

CJ: What are some future objectives of Whale Shark Mexico?

DRM: I will collaborate with other researchers in places such as Latin America. I will train locals to help sight and track whale sharks.

Note: Deni and her assistant, Maritza Cruz Castillo, are attempting to ultrasound one of the pregnant female whale sharks that frequent the Gulf of California. Stay tuned for updates!

I will also have posts on the 10 day expedition I took recently to the Gulf of California, with Panterra Expeditions and the Shark Research Institute, when I had a whale shark named after me ☺!